Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. I have heard of the five stages of grief and how our response to covid-19 has stumbled through them. At one point, we were in denial of the virus—it was something that was going to happen in China and Indians had greater natural immunity. We bargained with unseen gods about how long we needed to wear masks and stay home. We then became angry about wearing masks and staying home. We felt depressed that despite masks and vaccinations, a second wave still battered us. And I don’t know if we have truly reached the stage of accepting the new normal yet.
Revenge was never mentioned as one of the five stages. Yet Bengalis seem to have discovered it during Durga Puja. Footfall at the food and beverage outlets in Kolkata exceeded all expectations. Restaurants ran out of menu items. Some had to down shutters early. Many restaurants apparently did 25-30% more business than they did during Durga Puja 2019, in the pre-pandemic world, according to Sudesh Poddar, president of the Hotel & Restaurant Association of Eastern India. Anjan Chatterjee, who owns a slew of restaurants in Kolkata, like Oh! Calcutta and Mainland China, told the media, “What we witnessed was revenge eating.” He says after 18 months of cautious living, people “stepped out and splurged with a vengeance”. It was not just Kolkata. A Bengali cuisine restaurant in London, Chourangi, had queues for tables.
In Kolkata, I saw shamianas erected outside biryani restaurants. They were jammed with people, masked but social distancing be damned, all out for some “revenge biryani”. Perhaps they were making up for the lost Durga Puja of 2020. Perhaps they could not stomach the thought of another Durga Puja without biryani or a Mahabhoj Bengali thali while wearing shiny new clothes.
Whatever the reason, they had come out in droves, as if they all had the same subliminal commandment beamed into their heads—“Get dressed. Go out. Eat. Repeat.” Much as I looked at the hordes in horror, a part of me could empathise. Durga Puja is the high point of the cultural calendar in these parts and we had already been through one Durga Puja where the court had ordered us to stay out of the pandals. I could understand the need for revenge eating. People were making up for a lost year (and a lost Durga Puja).
Revenge, unlike biryani, is a dish best served cold. Edmond Dantès was betrayed by friends and wrongfully sentenced to prison. He waited some 24 years, plotting vengeance on those who wronged him and then came back as the Count of Monte Cristo to wreak that revenge. Thakur sahib in Sholay bided his time before nailing the villainous Gabbar Singh with his special studded shoes.
Great literary works are centred on the idea of revenge. The Iliad is at its core an odyssey of revenge, as is the Mahabharata, where Draupadi vowed not to tie her hair till she had washed it in Duryadhona’s blood to avenge the humiliation of being dragged by the hair in open court. But even before that, the Mahabharata was set in motion by princess Amba, who wanted revenge on Bhishma for abducting her.
Without the motivation of revenge, Hamlet would be a pallid play, no one would die on the Orient Express and Miss Havisham of Great Expectations would be a sweet old spinster. Even God understands it despite all the pieties about turning the other cheek. As God says in the Bible, “When I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me.” The Bible was very clear on “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”, though civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr said that would leave everybody blind.
Revenge is one of our most primal impulses. Marcus Aurelius said the best revenge is to be unlike the one who performed the injury. But while that’s very noble-minded, there is seriously no fun in it. Revenge seems like something that is longed for with much anticipation, which is why revenge eating makes so much sense.
What motivates us to seek revenge is apparently cultural. Michele Gelfand, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, US, found that American students felt more offended when their rights were violated, while Korean students were more offended when their sense of duty and obligation was threatened. And collectivists, unlike individualists, are more ready to avenge the shame or injury to another with whom they share an identity. “Revenge is more contagious in collectivist cultures,” says Gelfand.
We understand this only too well in South Asia, having gone through cycles of revenge riots. This Durga Puja saw horrific attacks on temples and pandals in Bangladesh. The trigger was, as is usual these days, a Facebook photograph of the Quran placed on the lap of a Hanuman idol in Cumilla. Local activists say it was deliberately planted by Jamaat-e-Islami miscreants to stoke violence. A mob of 500 attacked temples in Cumilla to avenge the insult. Hindu homes were attacked, so were puja pandals. Paramilitary forces were deployed and 10,000 protesters marched through Dhaka shouting “Down with the enemies of Islam” and “Hang the culprits”. While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowed that those who perpetrated the violence would be “hunted down and punished” no matter what their religion, one shudders to think what kind of cycle of revenge could be set in motion. When the Babri Masjid was attacked in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, in 1992, there were multiple attacks on the Hindus of Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina too indicated that when Muslims are attacked in India, the effects reverberate in Bangladesh. Indian politicians who speak up promptly and act decisively when minorities are attacked here would have more moral ground to demand quick and resolute action next door.
But while politicians can manipulate the desire for revenge to their own ends, a 2008 study in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology found that revenge rarely results in catharsis. “Rather than providing closure, it does the opposite. It keeps the wound open and fresh,” said Kevin Carlsmith, a social psychologist who conducted the study. Those who got their pound of flesh in revenge ended up thinking about it a lot, in part to justify the act.
So then what makes us seek revenge? One theory is we do so because we think the state is too lawless to deliver justice or too inefficient or biased. In that sense, it will be incumbent on Sheikh Hasina to nip the revenge cycle in the bud to show that the state is neither inefficient nor slow or prejudiced.
In the great films about revenge, we never know about the afterlife of revenge because the curtains have rolled by then. So we don’t know if Thakur sahib in Sholay could enjoy his retirement and find closure after stomping on Gabbar Singh. His widowed daughter-in-law, Radha, certainly found no new beginning after her husband’s death was “avenged”.
But we will know the effects of “revenge dining” soon enough. The weeks to come will tell us whether the splurge during Durga Puja will result not just in the usual Bengali indigestion but the revenge of the coronavirus as well.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.